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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 34



I zoomed into a webinar entitled, “Tech Ethics.” It had absolutely nothing to do with China. It had absolutely everything to do with China. This Issue looks at the twenty-first century world of China with the soundtrack of technology ethics playing in the background.

  • Twenty-First Century China and Technology Ethics

  • One More Thought (Tongcheng Harmony Alley)

 

Twenty-First Century China and Technology Ethics


Photo by Sam Albury on Unsplash


Christine Merser of Blue Shoe Content recently presented a webinar entitled, “Tech Ethics,” to the Cape Cod Technology Council. So how does a talk on “tech ethics” streamed to a northeast corner of America connect with China?


Because the issues raised by technology speak directly to questions, conundrums, and consequences faced by China, by the U.S., and by us all. The underlying bases for ethics of technology in China and the United States are the same. How we view and respond (and are responding) to them will be quite different. As such, this is another area that will play an outsize role in future collaboration, competition or clash between our two countries.



Look at the above bullet points and the concerns they raise: Misuse of personal information, Misinformation and deep fakes, Lack of oversight and responsibility, Use of artificial intelligence, and Autonomous technology. How might each of these potential ethical concerns figure in the following Chinese tech areas?


Chinese National Technology Ambitions. China’s desire to build a national computer network received official blessing at recent high-level, government meetings in Beijing. This network anticipates eight integrated computing hubs spread more evenly across China from the wealthier and more developed eastern part of the country where they are now concentrated to also include inland areas that are not as advanced or well-off. “The eight hubs will be the major junctions connecting the whole computing network, aimed at facilitating the country’s development in cloud computing and big data.” This being China, there is a strong central control aspect in the technology sector, and leading companies such as Tencent, Alibaba, JD.com, ByteDance China, and others have all publicly endorsed new government directives aimed at shaping the data world.


The Metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg is not alone in being interested in taking a leading position in the so-called metaverse. So too, apparently, are delegates in China’s National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, who raised the issue and offered ideas at the recent government meetings in Beijing. One focus is again on strong central government involvement in a Chinese metaverse. As reflected in more than one of the articles referenced in this Issue, China’s 2021 Cybersecurity Law, Data Security Law, and Personal Information Protection Law are mentioned as impacting China’s tech development with an emphasis on proactive responses to the noted ethical concerns.


Photo at Shanghai Daily


e-CNY digital currency. Digital yuan in China is now live in a limited and capped pilot program in eleven cities. China is already a virtually cashless society, with most people paying for everything using their cell phones (connected to bank accounts, platform accounts or credit cards). As such, personal data is already captured, collated, and controlled online for the vast majority of the population. If there is eventually an official digital currency that supplements or replaces paper yuan and coins, it ultimately may not have much more than an incremental impact to the existing widespread acceptance of an e-financial lifestyle in China.


5G and 6G. China is a leader in both of these cutting-edge technologies. Re: 5G, “[t]he Chinese mainland currently has 1.425 million installed 5G base stations that support more than 500 million 5G users nationwide.” The goal is to increase this number to two million in 2022. As for 6G, I do not claim to truly understand what the following means, other than it sounds fast and innovative and achieved in China: “Using vortex millimetre waves, a form of extremely high-frequency radio wave with rapidly changing spins, the researchers transmitted 1 terabyte of data over 1km (3,300 feet) in a second.” Not everyone agrees that China is substantively ahead in the game, and there will be known and unknown obstacles; however, China is pouring effort, energy, and resources into developing these technologies that will weave people more tightly into the new world technology order and is showing significant early progress.


Tech Hiring (and Firing). Technology companies need employees. Well, they need skilled employees. At least a certain number. ANT Group (an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding) recently held a “recruitment drive focused on blockchain and advanced computing technologies, as China’s Big Tech companies scramble to hire skilled young talent amid stagnant wages in the sector and increased scrutiny by regulators.” Huawei anticipates hiring 10,000 people in 2022. At the same time, tens of thousands of employees are about to be let go this year in announced layoffs at JD.com, Tencent, Kuaishou, Alibaba, Bilibili, and Baidu as a result of the government’s 2021 crackdown on the technology industry. And in further potential unemployment or underemployment news, Baidu (internet search and artificial intelligence company) is itching to expand its fully driverless robotaxi program beyond pilot zones and to change laws that limit such technology. As automation and advancements continue to throw a monkey wrench into employment numbers, how people are retrained, re-utilized, and possibly relocated to promote and maintain social and economic stability, security, and quality of life will grow in importance.

Back to the Blue Shoe webinar. The quote above must be true. Personal responsibility, ethical excellence, and promotion of the greater good should be ideals in both China and America. Here again, however, the countries produce radically different interpretations of the “We the People” takeaway. I can hear the argument that in a state-controlled country people do not give information freely, nor get to decide what to read, forward, and believe, nor have a say in who oversees their technology usage, nor have a voice in AI, nor have market power to effect change. And these can be valid criticisms, but the issues are not so clear cut. Public expression and opinion, for example, do exist and play a role in China.


China’s approach to ethics and serving the people is collective, top-down, and paternalistic. It has proven at times capable of being innovative, but also reactive. It can be efficient and productive as well as manipulative and overbearing. China’s system may seem diametrically counter to American notions of liberty and individuality (though a clear-eyed view of American society might question this in practice), but if it continues to work (or work well enough) and leads to social and economic stability and personal and national advancement, then Chinese “Tech Ethics” will remain attractive to many.

 

One More Thought (Tongcheng Harmony Alley)


Photo by Lui Hui, China Daily


In troubled times, a story of getting along and compromise, even if apocryphal, can’t be a bad thing. This is the story of Liuchixiang, the “Six Foot Alley,” in Tongcheng, Anhui Province, China. Legend has it that more than 300 years ago during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, two families were fighting over the location of a common property boundary. One family sought the auspices of a powerful relative to settle the matter in their favor. His unexpected advice led both parties to a more amicable solution. Besides demonstrating that humans have apparently always argued about where to put their fences (or in this case walls), the neighbors here ultimately each pulled their respective walls back one meter (three feet), which created a common, six-foot wide alley between them. “Among all the valuable historical sites in the city, the narrow alley is one of the most renowned attractions. It serves as a lesson, inspiring people to observe public spirit and cherish harmony, especially in disputes and conflicts.



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